Friday, November 25, 2016

The Unreliable Reliable Narrator

All characters, however remote their participation in a specific narrative, have motive for being there. In some cases, the character may appear in a story without wishing to be present, wishing instead to be allowed to retreat to the shadowy assumptions of other involvements.

Other characters wish to proceed as though their already rich sense of entitlement signifies the need to tell their story rather than the ones he or she was brought in to augment. When you see the need to introduce a new character and begin figuratively moistening and articulating the clay that will become this individual, you are often too quick to skip over a significant factor that will later come back to bite you.

Sometimes the need for this character is so urgent that you give the character the benefit of the doubt by assuming she or he is a reliable narrator. With little or no thought beyond the need for a new character to set foot within the landscape you're constructing, you assume they have a place in the story, otherwise why would you have considered them?

Good at his or her job, yes; truthful-but-leaning-toward objectivity? Not so much. Indeed, this character you're bringing forth, however polar from you as an individual, steps into the early drafts with the presumption of reliability, of truth telling, of inherent honesty, of fairness, and no inherent bigotry or moral laxity.

Good luck. However nice that the character is not recognizable as you, no good can come of the relative certainty that this character will not be reliable. Like you, this character will be at work accommodating some biases while trying to cope with others. This character may even become steadfast in refusing to tell you what he or she wants.

You've had to cope with the fallout implication here that you are no paradigm of narrative regularity, which takes you to fretting about the validity of the landscape you saw fit to create. One or two of the characters who are already in place may may seem overdone in their unreliable natures, but there is no surprise to you that they are indeed lacking reliability.

Over thinking such themes can bring the entire dramatis personae, the created landscape, and the accurate parallels to human behavior crashing down about you, leaving you to glower at the segments of your own landscape you refer to as Inner Editor and Middle School English Teacher, both of whom find occasions of great mirth in your behavior related to teaching yourself to compose effective fiction.

From time to time when you have thought your way into such a sulk, you identify with the highly unreliable narrator, Montressor, from Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," devising ways to lure said Inner Editor and Middle School English teacher into some suitable trap from which they cannot escape. 

One of the more pleasurable ones was set on the campus of California State University, Channel Islands, which used to be The Camarillo State Hospital, a significant repository for individuals afflicted with unreliable personality or, in the case of one patient of whom you were aware, personalities.

Your Inner Editor could be lured to a previously undiscovered vault with undiscovered manuscripts of value. Your Middle School English teacher could be lured there to see a poem etched in a concrete wall that could have been Robinson Jeffers handiwork or, better still, an uncatalogued poem from Dylan Thomas.

But unreliability is not restricted by boundaries; these two individuals are each in his/her own way every bit as unreliable as the rest of you. And once again, you are turning the lights of inquiry on those galloping, raucous individuals who are so intent upon their own existence that they cannot see how unreliable they have always been.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Inner Bird Feeder

Unless you are describing something with profound meaning to you or, by implication, to a character you have created, your description falls into the journalistic equivalent, the who, what, when, where, and why plateau, where you have no trouble picturing a generic version of the "something," but so far as another reader is concerned, perhaps even so far as you are concerned while rereading the material some days later, you are taking the "something" pretty much on faith.

Whatever the "something" is, it remains in the shadowy world of the general, primarily because you have not established a dramatic relationship with it. The "something" could be literally or figuratively small potatoes, in fact a small potato, baked, with a glob of sour cream and some shaved chives, which most readers will take for granted in much the same manner they have taken actual potatoes with sour cream and chive garnish at mediocre restaurants. 

The "something" stands a better chance of being memorable if it is served with one or more sensual garnishes or, if not those, some note of sentimentality or nostalgia relating to a past time and event, or, better yet, a memento from a person of significance.  

A man finds a necklace that may or may not have real garnet stones, lying in a Priced-to-sell tray at a pawnshop. He has paid less than five dollars for it, leaving us as witnesses to the purchase with an overall impression of the buyer as a cheap, manipulative sort. Our impressions of him worsen when he presents it to his lady friend, telling her this used to belong to his grandmother.

This inanimate object, a necklace, which may or may not have real garnet stones, has now undergone a dramatic transformation from the cheap trinket we know it to be, the cynical tool of a character we have little fondness for, to something of great value to the recipient because it was the first present from Him, and the fact of it having been his grandmother's speaks beyond the authenticity of the attached stones and to the recipient's impression of the level of seriousness attached to the giver of the necklace.

You have in almost daily use a chipped dish, too small to be a salad plate, possibly intended for a bread or roll plate or a plate to store leftovers. The person who brought it into you life paid all of a dime for it, but the mere fact of its having been brought into your sphere by the person who paid the dime for it at a neighborhood lawn sale makes it of inestimable value to you. 

If there had to be a broken dish in your immediate venue, there are other, more expensive dishes you would sacrifice to the gods of broken dishes, a simultaneous reflection on the value of the dish to you and the memory of the person who brought the dish out of its lawn sale orbit and into the kitchen orbit where you preside.

Such information is not often included in descriptions, which, however acute and accurate they may be, tend toward the general, a state and location we are all familiar with. Only when we are poised and focused for work are we able to move out of this state and into what you enjoy thinking of as the singing-in-the-shower state, the place where the birds of ideas and inspiration are likely to find the bird feeder of your imagination.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Escape Route

We live in more than one world at a time, hybrid realities shifting on and off as the energy in one is used up and the other, with a lurch, takes over. Story becomes an attempt to observe the various worlds with some standardized recognition of behavior.

Wishing to become a writer at this age is a perilous business, one you had no idea was so fraught with danger when you begin. The closer you come to understanding the writer's voice that is you, the more you realize it is a distillation not merely of the voices your earliest mentor asked you if you had achieved yet, rather instead that you are a composite of different worlds, different voices, differing needs and visions, clamoring a though opposing factions in a town hall meeting.

"Do you hear voices, or do you see things?" she asked. You were relieved when she confessed to hearing rather than seeing, not that there was or is a better one to be afflicted with. The problem would be to have neither, feeling you were even at a greater distance from your goal, instead inventing the middle ground, "A bit of both," as a sophisticated choice. Within seconds of hearing that question for the first time, you were rewarded with memories of you scribbling furiously to get down the wording from those voices, coming at you so quickly you despaired of capturing it all.

Sometimes the swiftness and intensity of the words makes it impossible for you to capture it all, a frustration with close relationship to the times you dream a story or a scene or a triggering exchange of dialogue which you are unable to recall after you've awakened.

In both cases, awake or asleep, the process is in a sense scattering clues for you, making it part of your job to focus on the individuals and images involved.  The takeaway: Nothing comes easy; even when you think you have "it," you have only an approximation which will want some reaching into the deeper-than-waking state to recapture as much as possible.

In order to write a page or two of narrative, you find no sufficiency in the mere taking of notes; you want to hear and investigate the clamor, listening to the voices, some of whom have the same effect on you that reading a boring book or engaging in a boring conversation has.

There is no escape when the complains from within border on the boring because this is you and you need to listen, to sympathize with as many of them as possible. From your own brief experience as an extra during the heydays of live TV drama and from the hundreds of stories you've sent to magazines scattered about the continent, you have a sense of those who are rarely if ever going to be cast in anything and of those who are not likely to find their stories being given homes in any publication for the foreseeable future, if ever.

Difficult as it is to account for the presence of such aspects of yourself, you must persist in attempts to know them and feel some compassion for their complaints lest all your characters sound as though they originate from the same source. Story plays on the contrasts or differences between individuals and between conglomerates and associations.

You'd thought earlier on that it would be easy because you were desperately bored to get away and out on your own adventures and because, even then, your own reading had provided you with what you thought was imagination. 

In your first creative writing class, when the instructor asked you and your classmates to name necessary conditions for story, you said imagination, and you meant it, but he asked you to consider if you were yet old enough for what imagination really was, which had the possible meaning for you that what you really had was a group of escape plans for the prisons of reality you liked least of all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Times When You Do and Do Not Know Jack

From time to time, your father would observe of something you'd done a judgment of "Pretty good," or "Well played," or even "Nice touch, there." Given the depth of your relationship with him and your sense of knowing him, these seemingly mild words of praise were sufficient to maintain a relationship that was healthy and supportive. As you were later to judge father-son relationships, you counted yourself polar opposites from Pat Conroy, a writer you much admire, and his father, whom he memorialized in the novel The Great Santini.

Without realizing it at the time, for that would have given you too much credit for having too much insight, you felt somehow promoted to the higher stratosphere of relationships and regard on those times when your father's observations went beyond "Pretty good," and "Nice touch" to the majestic rhetoric of, "What are you, some kind of wise guy?" or the more declarative "Wise guy."

A wise guy is an essential demonstration of a sarcasm sandwich, either the closest thing to a non-Yiddish put-down or an expression of admiration. Starting with basic ingredients, a wise guy is a savant, a magi, a learned person. 

Level one of being called a wise guy is another essential demonstration, one of exaggerated otherness; it is being singled out after having said or done something of incredible gaucheness or stupidity, the equivalent of being accused of "You think you know everything, but you don't know jack."

One of your first times in memory of being called a wise guy came after you observed to your father, scant seconds of his observation that you didn't know jack, "It is my good fortune to have a father named Jack."

Depending on its use, the term wise guy is a mantra evoking praise or disdain. You spent many years thinking you were a wise guy, acting as though you were one, and not always getting along in the world about you because of it. Somehow the observations from your father were recognition that you could be prized for knowing one or two things as opposed to knowing well beyond things you had no hope of knowing.

Being a wise guy meant you were apt, funny, observant, relatively able to cope, sometimes even more than relatively able; you were more than the sorcerer's apprentice, you had a leg up over the horse of Reality.


Wise guy is other. If you have learned anything at all about story at this stage of your career, you have learned that story and the kinds of humor you prefer are about other, which is to say one thing being compared with another. Things that are merely themselves are neither story nor funny. A dandelion growing in a patch of grass is merely a thing; the same dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk is other, unexpected, story.

As a lad, you used to sell newspapers on a corner near a Branch of the social service providing unemployment payments. Indeed, some unemployed were now able to afford a copy of the Herald-Express you were selling, presumably to check the Help Wanted ads. The Other, the unexpected or story, was the arrival of a character named Adolph Menjou to pick up his unemployment check between his relatively steady employment in films, driven by a chauffeur in his employ and in a limousine he owned. 

That was Other; that was funny and it was story. The universe abounds with things, persons who use those things, yet other persons who make those things. The universe abounds with an ever-expanding awareness of tenets of behavior. These tenets are sometimes called laws. There are natural laws, which may even be named after you for all eternity to see if you were the first to observe them.  In your matriculation through high school and university, you became aware of such laws as the many of Newton, at least one of Ohm, one you know of from a fellow named Lavoisier. Such laws apply to the observable behavior of matter.

There are other laws, laws enacted by people, trying to exert a sense of behavioral boundaries beyond which the so-called reasonable or prudent person will not trespass. Look at the consequences of two individuals, Prometheus and Sisyphus, who overstepped boundaries.

The more of a wise guy you become, the more you see yourself as having been formed in ways agreeable to you because you knew some jack and, indeed, some considerable Jack. The Other you notice is the dandelion in the cement and your own growth therein rather than a patch of grass.

The stories you relish most are of the Other and if one of your own should happen to come to fruition along those lines, you are the happier for it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Contrast, the Forgotten Ingredient

There you were, an undergraduate by day, sopping up literature in the English Department of your university, while sneaking out at night, first to write comedy for television, later to work at the night office of the Associated Press, tucked off into a corner of the LA Times newsroom.

What you learned most nights had a growing, remarkable effect on how you progressed during the days. You learned to write essay-type questions on exams as news stories, starting with the most information in the opening paragraph.

In the same way ordinary characters cause readers to set books down partially read, not to be returned to, sameness provokes a similar need to begin casting about for an exit.Contrast is one of the essentials of humor. Persons behaving in a consistent manner rarely provide news stories.

After about two days of writing comedy, you began to understand the importance of the two principals in Aristophanes' great romp, The Frog, being a slave and his master, with each having a specific dependence on the other. Two masters--not funny. Two slaves? Even less funny. 

Later, at the Associated Press, the awareness of a person doing the same thing for forty years might make a short feature article, but a person doing something wildly different after having done the same thing for forty years was a story.

Suppose Abbott and Costello looked alike, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and that twit, Lewis. What about Holmes and Watson, and, well into the twentieth century, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.

Different is dramatic where sameness is--well, static. Consistent is sameness, change and surprise are explosive. Most jokes and many stories end on a surprise that comes directly from a shift in the sameness.

We've all heard stories about genie's in bottles, offering boons or wishes to mortals who are fortunate enough to encounter one thus imprisoned and now set free. But who could fail to become interested in a story about a hearing-impaired genie, who mishears to great mischief the wish of a rescuer?

Imagine the rescuer, entering a bar, ordering a large drink for himself and a small thimbleful for his apparent prop, a tiny piano player, who begins playing a toy piano.  

"The genie was hard of hearing," the rescuer tells a jaded bartender, a man who, by virtue of his profession, has seen and heard nearly everything.  "I did not ask for this," the rescuer says, indicating the miniature player before him.  "I did not ask the genie for a nine-inch pianist."

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Heraclitus Can't Change Costumes in the Same Dressingroom

In your attempts to finish up on your booklength project, Required Reading: The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own,  you find yourself bamboozled and tossed about by your old friend, change.

The book doesn't change; it remains the unique amalgam of technique, inspiration, evocation and the mystical x-factor found in all enduring works of fiction. But there is also a mystical x-factor in you, manifesting its presence each time you reread something you read before. 

Regardless of the outcome of rereading--you either conclude you've outgrown the book entirely or if it happens to be a so-called young reader book, you respect but realize you've outgrown it, or, better yet, you wonder how you missed all the newly discovered wonders within its pages--there has been a change within you.

Some of the obvious changes are your loss of interest in the theme or lead character of a novel, perhaps the nature of the problem he or she has set forth to grapple with, perhaps yet your awareness that earlier readings triggered a false or overbearing sentimentality which you now find intolerable. 

Best of all, a sense of having grown into something, where you can identify more of the nuances you'd missed in previous readings, even to the extent of sweeping these nuances under the same rug where you swept details.

Some of your hundred choices have been lifelong friends; even this last revisit in 2016 to Huckleberry Finn, caused you to wonder how, even as recently as the last time you taught the work in a classroom, you thought you were on intimate terms with that mystical x-factor of a narrative. 

You can readily understand the how and why of your appreciation for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which, as you listen to an old books-on-tape version, read by Paul Newman, you realize you know close to from memory.  But that novel is not one of the hundred you winnowed from all those you've read and remembered. 

Part of the distractions you're encountering with the final sections of this work in progress have to do with the inversion process, where you understand now how you are describing changes within you rather than changes in a given novel. You are also recognizing how a number of these hundred novels of which you write are narratives from your more immediate reading than the reading of your childhood, teens, twenties, and even into your thirties.

This results in a kind of perfect sense only you will see or experience, resident in today's revisit to the fiction you are writing to distract you from the nonfiction you are writing. Reading through pages you thought well of yesterday, you wonder today what caused you to see mischief and energy in them yesterday.

Something has changed. Also, paragraphs you gave little thought to yesterday suddenly seem alive with potential and promise. You stopped writing yesterday having come to a point where you'd run out of clues or possibilities. Where to go next? No clue.

Even more disconcerting, much of your fiction has migrated from Los Angeles northward to Santa Barbara, where you have lived nearly half your life. The project you want to begin directly after getting past The Hundred Novels Project is set in Santa Barbara. The distraction fiction had its beginnings of all places in  a men's room in Royce Hall, the building at UCLA where most of your literature classes were held.

You were out of clues that would whisper hints of where your next scenes would take place, until a passing remark from a student moved you out of your westside Los Angeles dead end, perhaps sixty miles northward to the outer reaches of Los Angeles County, a large campus you have never visited, at least not in reality. 

This campus is the retirement home for the men and women who worked in the multifarious aspects of the motion picture and television industry, where you and your protagonist will be coping with the outcomes of change.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Status in Story: An Inertial Guidance System

A practical but frequently overlooked device to feed the incessant demands of story shows its hand in the in the form of a shift in the status or power of one of the principal characters. Look no farther than Macbeth, wherein the eponymous protagonist may be seen reporting to his wife how his conscience forbade him to take the life of King Duncan as they had planned.

We see the shift in status not only from the change in Macbeth's earlier demeanor but as well from the manner in which Lady Macbeth responds to the news. She is telling him how less than a man he is in her eyes. 

This reversal is overcome later, when Lady Macbeth looks up from her husband's hands, dripping the blood of Duncan. The first words out of her mouth reflect a shift in status. "My husband!" she says.

Story runs on power, its energy the inertia of dramatic movement. The inertia begins with the intensity of interest and focus of a major character on a goal or intent, which means the actions of an antagonist to blunt the inertia of a protagonist will serve the dramatic purpose of keeping the story alive and moving.

Sometimes, particularly in longer works, two-act plays or novels, the writer will find use in bringing the action to a screeching halt by ending a scene on a matter of pending inertia, which is to say a cliffhanger. After establishing the outcome to be kept in a pending condition, the author injects another agenda, another character engaged in some compelling activity, the dramatic equivalent of bait and switch, which may--and has--extended almost to the limits of the writer's purpose.

Season four, episode six of the ever-shifting strands of power in Breaking Bad, illustrates such a point of transference. Skyler White, wife to the protagonist, Walter, fearful of the safety of her family, begs Walter to go to the police. 

Skyler insists Walt is "in over his head." In this scene, he takes, embraces power. "Who is it you think you see," Walter asks Skyler. He informs her of the amount of money he makes and the power he wields. "I am the man with the gun, knocking at the door. I am the danger."

In some drama, power is a matter of social status or tradition, sometimes inherited through position, sometimes obtained by the equivalent of blackmail. The holder of the power expects to be listened to, obeyed without question; the power holder expects a continuation of the status quo. As readers, we watch for the moments of shifting, perhaps recalling moments in our own life when we stood up to the established power, then stared it down.

In constructing story, you try to keep in mind at all times a definition you once memorized in a high school physics class, where the topic of inertia was presented for your consideration. "Objects at rest tend to stay at rest until their stasis is overcome by a governing force." In other words, the "another day in paradise" residents of Santa Barbara are so fond of observing much of the time--until the stasis is destabilized by a force intense enough to set the "object" in motion.

"Objects in motion tend to stay in motion until they are overcome by friction of sufficient intensity to bring them to a halt."  Thus story, which is inertia-in-motion, is propelled by the lead character's wish for an idiosyncratic outcome.  Story stops when the details or digressions take the energy away from dramatic inertia.